Congress hasn’t brought itself to censure or impeach Alberto Gonzales, but it sure does relish pummeling him. Maybe that’s the problem: Beating up on the attorney general makes for such a good time that the senators just can’t give him up.
Even after all these months of tacking and backtracking, Gonzales’ lack of command of the details is something to behold. He doesn’t know the total number of U.S. attorneys who were fired. He doesn’t recall his participation in reversing former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton’s decision about whether to seek the death penalty in a case where all the evidence was circumstantial. He doesn’t know why DoJ’s new guide to prosecuting voter fraud removed or watered down key directives against pursuing cases in a way that could interfere with the outcome of an election. He doesn’t know why the Justice Department’s guidelines restricting communications with the White House now suddenly include a blanket exception for contact between the attorney general and the vice president and his counsel. And, of course, he doesn’t know who put the names of the U.S. attorneys on the list he approved for firing.
Gonzales’ biggest problem today isn’t the senators, who can shake their heads and raise their voice at his nonanswers, but can’t change them or get rid of him without the drama of impeachment. His problem is Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who has twice shown up before Congress to achieve an impossible feat: make his former boss look worse than Gonzales’ own self-immolating performances. First, Comey vouched for the U.S. attorneys Gonzales fired, making it clear that he couldn’t imagine any good reason why they lost their jobs. Next, he told the creepy story of Gonzales’ race to the hospital bed of John Ashcroft, when Gonzales was White House counsel, Ashcroft was critically ill, and Gonzales was determined to get him to sign off anyway on a surveillance program that Comey and the director of the FBI had decided was illegal.
Specter quotes one of Comey’s best lines twice: “I thought I had just witnessed an attempt to take advantage of a very sick man.” What, Specter wants to know, is Gonzales’ side of the story? (That is, if Specter’s question, which began, “What credibility is left for you?” can be considered an open inquiry.)
Gonzales says that his visit to Ashcroft’s hospital bed in spring 2004 was triggered by a meeting earlier that day of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, the congressional leadership briefed on some of the administration’s anti-terror doings. He wanted to tell Ashcroft that “Comey didn’t approve vital anti-terrorism activities despite continued approvals” over the previous two years, and that by “consensus,” the Gang of Eight—including the four Democrats—had agreed that the administration should keep these activities going anyway.
Specter cuts him off. “How can you get approval from Ashcroft for this program if he’s no longer the attorney general?” he asks.
“We would not have sought nor did we intend to get any approval from Ashcroft if he was not competent,” Gonzales answers. “But there are not rules. He could always reclaim—”
“While under sedation?” Specter retorts.
Later, when Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, gives Gonzales a chance to finish his thought, he says that during his visit to the hospital (with Andrew Card, then-White House chief of staff), “Ashcroft did most of the talking” and was “as lucid as he is at the White House.” In other words, he can’t imagine why Jim Comey and Ashcroft’s wife felt like they needed to stand by Ashcroft’s side, or why FBI Director Robert Mueller didn’t want Ashcroft left alone with Gonzales and Card. Various senators make sure to note that they don’t believe this.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also thinks he has caught Gonzales in a lie. When Comey testified, it was clear that he was talking about the “terrorist surveillance program” run by the National Security Agency, which was secretly authorized by the president after 9/11 and announced to the public in 2005 (after the New York Times reported on it). Now Gonzales says, “The reason for my visit to the hospital was other surveillance activities. It was not about the program the president had announced.” But at a June press conference, Gonzales referred to a “highly classified program which the president confirmed to the American people some time ago” in discussing Comey’s testimony. Why would Gonzales be motivated to change his story now? Because before Comey went public about the argument over the terrorist surveillance program, Schumer asked Gonzales whether there had been any “dissent within the administration” about it, and Gonzales said no.
Schumer’s point is that Gonzales was lying then and is covering his tracks now. This leads to a little theatrical moment. For the most part, the senators today don’t try to hit Gonzales with questions he can’t know the answers to. They want him to explain himself, not duck. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., posted his questions last week on the Web. But this question was a surprise. When Gonzales says to Schumer, “I’d like to look at my responses” at the press conference, Schumer is ready to smoothly reply, “We’ll bring them up to you right now.”
“Good,” Gonzales says, which he must immediately regret, because it’s a trap. After some whispering from the row of aides sitting behind him, Gonzales says that he “did misspeak” at the June press conference, “but I went back and clarified it with a reporter.” Which reporter? More whispering. “Dan Eggen, at the Washington Post, two days later.” Schumer presses. Gonzales repeats, “I clarified my statement to the reporter.” Then, after more questions and more whispering, “I didn’t speak directly to the reporter.” There’s an intake of breath around the room, and it’s not just from the women wearing pink whose hats and banner and mouth tape read “Fire Gonzales.”
“What did your spokespeople say to him?” Schumer asks.
“I don’t know,” Gonzales answers.
This is either a petty hunt or precisely what is wrong with Gonzales as attorney general. He says one thing, then he says another; he tries again, then runs over himself. “If you want to be attorney general, you should be able to clarify yourself,” Schumer scolds him. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., tells Gonzales that his testimony is a first. “I’ve never heard comments and questions like those I’m hearing today from both sides of the aisle,” she says. “Then I listen to your responses, which are nonresponses. … No question is answered directly. Everything is obfuscated.” The senators are howling with institutional rage. They feel deceived. They feel dissed. Some of them may be ready to do something about it. “Mr. Chairman, I think we should look into this,” Schumer says to Leahy. He’s talking about a perjury investigation. Specter mentions a special prosecutor.
In the midst of the indignation and the muddle is “something absolutely unexpected,” as Spencer Ackerman and Paul Kiel point out at TPM Muckraker. Gonzales has claimed that he went to see Ashcroft about something other than the warrantless surveillance at the NSA that we know included some domestic communications. In other words, there was something else “vital” and “urgent” enough to justify the race to Ashcroft’s sickbed. Is Gonzales simply parsing the word other in a way that only he understands? Or is he talking about some brave new world of surveillance that we don’t yet have a clue about? The conspiracy-minded might wonder.
The senators don’t buy it, however. They stick with frustrated references to Alice in Wonderland and Hamlet (“Something is rotten …”). I had a different, pop-cultural, flash, to E.B. Farnum, the default mayor on the HBO series Deadwood, put in office to be the tool of those who actually run things. He’s the master of cringe and grandiosity. He tries to hatch “schemes and swindles” for his betters, but they always go wrong. He can’t get anyone “to take him seriously.” Take a look at that face: Isn’t it sad, beleaguered, and familiar?